Out of a recent zoom discussion on race and justice, I heard comments from Black men about how they are often perceived as dangerous, and someone to be careful of, especially by white women. The men who spoke were mature, successful residents or former residents of my town, and their queries were heartfelt and not adequately answered. I saw a post on Facebook: a Black suburban dad related how he only took a walk around his neighborhood when he had his dog and/or young daughter with him. It’s not new, either. Years ago a Black man wrote about whistling some classical tune when walking alone at night in the city to signal he was not a threat. More recently, I was talking to a vet who is Black about taking a walk around the beautiful grounds of the Veteran’s hospital to spend time in nature. He said he was reluctant to go on his own as a large man of color, because someone might make a phone call and he’d have to deal with uncomfortable questions, at the least. It wasn’t worth it. So much for the peace of nature.
I wished I’d spoken up, because I do know better. I learned from life experience when I was a woman in my twenties in the 1980’s living hand to mouth in New York City,. There were a lot of men, all colors, who were willing to make me uncomfortable with unwanted attention. There were also a lot of robberies – purses and wallets. I was warned – don’t make eye contact, keep your purse strapped around you, cross the sidewalk, all the conventional wisdom. As a country girl, I thought it was probably right; as a poor girl, I didn’t worry too much, since I didn’t have much to steal.
Two young black men on the subway on a quiet Sunday morning taught me a different lesson. I got on the train on the upper west side, near Columbia U, on my way to Penn Station. An express train, with very few stops. Less than a dozen people on the subway car, all of them Black, as I remember, some older people. I sat on my own, purse strapped around me, a small day bag on my lap. Across were two young black men talking to each other. I was aware, but not nervous, pretty much looking at ads or down at my lap, no phones back then.
After a bit, one of them started talking about me – also not the first time this has happened. “Well, here’s a young lady off on a trip, it looks like. I wonder where she’s going?” So, I know to ignore them, but one guy doesn’t want to stop. “I bet you’re going some place fun, aren’t you?” he says to me directly -- something like that. No answer. Then he says it louder. No answer. “Maybe she can’t hear me.” The other guy says, “She can hear you.” Then the first guy says, “What’s wrong with me just being friendly? How does she know I’m not a nice guy?” Then he gets going. “How come the white girls never say a word to me? You ever notice that? It’s like I’m not even there; like I’m invisible, they can’t even see me.” He gets up and crosses in front of me, stooping down to look up into my face. I turn to one side. He moves into my line of vision. I turn the other way. He’s right in front of me.
I hang my head, refusing to meet his eyes. “Can you see me now?” By now people are noticing, but no one says anything. But he’s talking to them, too. “How come they have to pretend I’m not there? What, I’m so ugly they can’t even look at me? If I even look at them, they have to move away quick as anything.”
He was getting loud; I was getting scared, not that I really thought he’d attack me. I just wanted it to stop. Of course, he was taking advantage of me being stuck on the car, unable to depart until the next stop.
Finally, I looked up – and across the aisle to the other young man, watching all this unfold. I looked at him in the eyes, and he looked back. “Leave her be,” he said to his friend, finally. “That’s enough.” My antagonist sat back down, and I glanced at him, just briefly, but that was it. I got off at the next stop and caught the next train.
That was almost 40 years ago. Now I look people, all people, in the eye as I pass or meet them. It’s different now, of course, me and also the times. In the end I found it was safer to look someone in the eye, acknowledge their humanity – let them see that I see them – rather than to deprive them of the right to walk as fully human on the streets we share.